Better Have Another

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The the first of the blueberries are coming in now, and most mornings one of us stops by the patch on our way in from chores to snag a handful or three. We planted the 90-something bushes 16 years ago, before we’d even broken ground on the house. This struck me as nothing short of insane at the time – after all, we were living in a musty and dilapidated rental shack with no running water other than what leaked through the roof during thunderstorms – but as is so often the case, Penny knew better than I. She is one of those people graced with the ability to envision a future I can only blindly lurch toward; likewise, she knew that bare root blueberry whips take at least five years to produce and she knew of the Chinese proverb that says “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” In her wisdom, Penny understood that this proverb also applies to fruit-bearing bushes and that in five years, the days we spent digging and ammending and planting would have been long forgotten, while the annual flush of berries would feel like a gift that won’t stop giving.

This is the first year in the decade since the bushes became prolific that we didn’t run out of last season’s frozen berries before the current flush began. In fact, just last week we emptied the last quart down our insatiable gullets. We generally freeze 100 or more quarts of blueberries, plus maybe 20 quarts of strawberries, plus another 20 or so quarts of wild blackberries. Yeah, we eat a lot of berries, in no small part because they’re essentially free: The original bare root blueberry whips we planted all those years ago cost us less than $500, and have required maybe another $100 or so in fertility upkeep. Since then, we’ve picked and eaten at least a couple thousand quarts, and sold that much again. Hell, there ain’t a hedge fund manager alive who wouldn’t kill for that kind of return.

Berries are one of the few food items we produce that we don’t generally run out of at some point during the year. I was thinking about this the other day, when we dined on a bowl of liberally buttered new potatoes we’d snuck from the tater patch. They were the first potatoes we’d eaten in quite some time; our stash ran dry back in March or so, and not long after, the 20-pounds or so a friend gifted to us also disappeared. Since then, we’ve been taterless.

The same goes for most everything around here. When we dry off the cows, we don’t drink milk (we do, however, continue to eat the butter we’ve made and frozen) until they’re fresh again. When we’ve picked clean the last of the claytonia from the winter greenhouse, we don’t eat salad until the first early shoots of lettuce in late April or early May. When the carrots are gone, they’re gone. If we run out of beef, we eat chicken. If we run out of chicken, we eat sausage. If we run out of sausage, we eat… no, actually, that’s totally unacceptable. We never allow ourselves to run out of sausage.

We don’t do this out of pride, or even frugality. We could afford to buy potatoes in summer, or salad in winter, or milk whenever. We raise a goodly portion of our food – I’d guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% – but we’re not dogmatic about it. If we want to buy something to eat, we damn well buy something to eat.

Here’s the thing: We don’t want to buy these things, if only because by going without them for a time, our anticipation of them and appreciation for them grows. If you eat potatoes every day, they’re just potatoes: Kinda bland and boring, truth be told, although a few tablespoons of home-churned butter does bring a certain magic to them. If you have salad every day, it’s just salad. I mean, really, when’s the last time you started drooling over a bowl of mixed greens?

Here’s the other thing. If you go four or five months without eating a potato, a funny thing happens: You covet the potato, you read poems to it, you build an altar for it, you think it’s as beautiful as the smiling faces of your children or your spouse. You are grateful for it in a way you’d almost forgotten you could be grateful for something so small, so humble, so graceful in its simplicity and proportions.

You almost don’t even dare eat the thing, but of course you do. Of course. Is it the best potato you’ve ever had? It’s hard to say. Could be. Might be. Better have another just to be sure.


The Land Leads


A couple days ago, some folks stopped by. They’re not from around these parts, as the saying goes, but they’re looking for property in the area, and are having a heck of a time finding a place that meets their needs. Or fits their expectations. Which of course are not necessarily the same thing. Anyway, it seems as if every property they’ve looked at involves compromise in one form or another.

It got me thinking about how we landed here. Which, I have to say, was pretty much by default. We’d been looking for land for a year or more, and it had been a rather dispiriting process, what with our meager resources (we had all of $15k to our names) and our desire to inhabit a piece of land suited to small scale growing and general romping about. This was 16 years ago, so $15k wasn’t as meager as it sounds today, but still… it weren’t terrible much even at the time. As such, Penny and I kept getting dragged across one sopping wet 5-acre cedar swamp after another, with realtors babbling on about “potential” and “promise.” Yeah, right, whatever.

Anyhow, after a solid 12 months of this, we stumbled across a for-sale-by-owner ad in one of those free local papers that’s mostly ads for used car dealers and Dunkin’ Donuts promotion-of-the-week. The land advertised wasn’t in one of our towns of choice, but the description was compelling, and the price was exactly on the outer limit of what we could afford with the 50% down payment banks typically require for bare land purchases. As I’ve written before, we made an offer the same day we looked at it.

What’s interesting to me is how many of the aspects of our property that we first perceived as deficient, have become beloved. The hills, for instance: Our entire property slopes westward, with hardly a piece of ground level enough to accurately check the oil in our car. It is true that for optimum efficiency in growing, flat land would be preferable. But the sloping and undulating nature of our land has become one of our most-favorite things about it. There is a sense of energy to it; it is dynamic and flowing, with little hummocks scattered about so that there is always a view that can’t quite be realized from wherever one stands, but is near enough to being revealed that it beckons you forward. These same characteristics – slope and undulations – also mean that our property is home to numerous microclimates, which we are slowly learning to leverage for growing species that are not entirely suited to this region. This summer – thus far one of the wettest, if not the wettest, on record – we haven’t had to deal with any flooding, because once the soil becomes saturated, the pitch of our land carries the rain water into the valley below. Every day, I hump it up the hills of our pasture carrying bags of chicken feed, or reels of fencing, or a chainsaw, and I feel my heart thumping and the sweat on my brow, and I know I am lucky for the effort, that it may end up adding years to my life. Either that, or I’ll drop  dead of a heart attack in our pasture someday. Which wouldn’t actually be such a bad way to go; Penny and the boys could just dig a hole on the downhill side of me and give a little shove.

I could go on, but I suppose my point is this: We did not buy our ideal piece of property. We bought a piece of property that we could afford, and that despite its deficiencies, spoke to us. It wasn’t so much that we walked this land and thought that maybe we could make it work; it was that we walked this land and knew we’d found what we were looking for, despite the fact that it really wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. If that makes any sense.

It’s been a decade-and-a-half since we moved onto this land, and I often think about how profoundly this property has shaped our lives in ways that are utterly unique to it. To be sure, we have done our share of shaping – dug a pond, cleared for pasture, built a house – but I suspect the land still wields the greater power. For whatever reason, this is comforting to me.

The truth is, the land leads. We just follow.